by Mick Vann
Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects
by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio
Ten Speed Press, $19.95 paper
The taste is "like nut-flavored scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella, wrapped in a smoky phyllodough pastry." It sounds absolutely dee-lish right? What if you knew that Peter Menzel was describing a freshly dug and fire-roasted witchetty grub in the outback of Australia? It doesn't sound quite as appetizing anymore does it (although the guts look just like melted Velveeta in the photos)? If you were an Aborigine or an adventurous Aussie, it certainly would. And the witchetty grubs that Peter Menzel ate in Australia while on assignment as a freelance photographer were his first taste of the insect world.
Man Eating Bugs is the logical extension of Menzel's "simultaneous visceral repulsion and cerebral attraction" to the art of entomophagy, or the eating of insects. Menzel travels the world as an internationally known photographer. He feels strongly that one of the quickest ways to bond with hosts in a foreign country is to eat what everyone else eats: camel in Somalia, monkey in Mexico, dog in Indonesia, and, of course, the grubs in the outback (this from the son of a family in which it was considered daring to add a can of tomato soup to the meat loaf). Faith D'Alusio -- Peter's wife -- serves as the perfect foil to his relish of bug cuisine. She abhors insect consumption, and her comments are offered throughout the book as a humorous counterpoint.
Menzel got hooked on the concept after reading an article about The Food Insects Newsletter, published by a University of Wisconsin entomologist. Over the next few years, the couple traveled to 13 different countries around the world where insects are a common food, to chronicle and participate in the practice. The result is a book that's equal parts travelogue, anthropology text, and cookbook, told in an amusing and witty style and lavishly illustrated with incredible photographs.
Menzel and D'Alusio have done their entomological research carefully. The reader learns more than he needs to know about the hapless culinary victims, but at the same time, the authors offer enough information to aid in the harvesting, should you get the urge. If you find yourself in the Asmat swamp in the jungles of Irian Jaya, and you get a hankering for a platter of steaming, tasty sago grubs, Man Eating Bugs will tell you how to quell that craving. In Australia, the authors dined on honeypot ants by picking up the ants, holding them by the head, and biting off their sweet, nectar-swollen little bellies. In Thailand, they sampled fried bamboo moth larvae, which tasted like salty, crispy shrimp puffs. The tarantulas of Cambodia are described as tasting "as if day-old chicken had no bones, had hair instead of feathers, and were the size of a young sparrow." Fried silkworm pupae in China are said to have a taste akin to a crunchy peanut skin stuffed with mild, woody foie gras, while the three-inch-long marine worms are reportedly like chewy strips of portobello mushroom -- yummm.
The life of a bug eater isn't all a bed of roses. The infamous jumil stinkbugs of Mexico have "a strong taste, like aspirin saturated in cod liver oil with dangerous subcurrents of rubbing alcohol and iodine." And then you have the problem of bugs that bite or sting, like the scorpions eaten in China (excellent deep fried, but hell to deal with). The creepiest of all -- for me, anyway -- was the infamous foot-long, bird-eating tarantula of Venezuela (Theraphosa leblondi). One of these guys completely covers a dinner plate. But after being held in the fire until they erupted a yard-long burst of steaming innards, then split open, it was hard for Menzel and D'Alusio to tell them apart from smoky snow crab. I'm sorry, but this would give me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.
The estimated number of insects on earth is 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000), and the class Insecta consists of at least a million species, and perhaps as many as 30 million. Although insects are the dominant life form on our planet, there's no denying the fact that we're at the top of the food chain. In olden days, before the advent of the supermarket, our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors feasted regularly on all manner of bugs, and many cultures still do today. Some entomophagists speculate that bugs will return to our diets on a big scale, to be the food of the future -- imagine a soylent green tablet of compressed insect protein. On a percentage basis, dried insects have triple the protein content of mammals and birds, and a much higher vitamin and mineral content. It takes 10 times as much food to raise a pound of cattle as it does a pound of caterpillars (and a lot more time and space); you could literally raise most of your nutritional needs in an area the size of a kitchen cupboard. If I'm going to have to eat bugs, I'd much rather pop a pill than deal with the slime, or worry about going out with some legs or exoskeleton caught between my teeth.
The authors do pose a couple of caveats. Faith recommends starting with bugs that crisp up well when roasted and avoiding things like worms, which are too chewy, or cicadas, which are too fleshy and tough. And, of course, always know the source of your insects -- that slow-moving grasshopper could have a healthy dose of pesticide in his system. When Central Market starts carrying all of our favorite species, lets hope they have standards as high for bugs as they have for their fish.
I would like to pose a philosophical question for the vegans in the crowd. Given that a cricket or a grub has the mental capacity of say, a carrot, would they be considered fair game? After all, besides men eating bugs, carnivorous plants eat bugs as well. A bug's life, for some species anyway, isn't all Disney has it cracked up to be.
Grasshopper Tacos (Tacos de Chapulines)
1/2 pound medium-sized grasshoppers
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lemon, juiced
2 ripe avocados, mashed
6 tortillas (corn or flour)
Roast grasshoppers for 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Toss with garlic, lemon juice, and salt to taste. Spread mashed avocado on tortilla. Sprinkle on roasted hoppers, to taste.